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First Corinthians: Women in the Assembly

January 28, 2008

Just as in the case of head coverings, I am about to explain an unpopular position on the subject of women being silent in the church. I have studied these two topics at length and have discussed them with many people. I have read papers on both sides of the issue. The bottom line for me is that the following is what I believe the scriptures teach.

Paul had another contentious issue to address in the Corinthian church. At the beginning of these instructions, Paul made it clear that the teaching he was giving was the common practice of all the churches. It was not a special case for the Corinthian church:

1Co 14:33b-35 As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

In verse 34, Paul used the word σιγατωσαν which is translated “keep silent”, “be silent” “remain silent” and similarly in the various translations. From Thayer’s Greek Definitions:

σιγατωσαν
1) to keep silence, hold one’s peace
2) to be kept in silence, be concealed

This is the same word used a few verses earlier teaching that, if an interpreter is not present, the tongue-speaker should keep quiet. The general idea is that they may have something to say, but they should keep it to themselves. Just as in the case of the tongue-speakers, it did not imply that they were prohibited from singing or speaking to individuals in fellowship. It only prohibited their publicly addressing the congregation.

So that there would not be any confusion, Paul elaborated, saying that women are not allowed to speak (λαλειν).

λαλειν
1) to utter a voice or emit a sound
2) to speak
2a) to use the tongue or the faculty of speech
2b) to utter articulate sounds
3) to talk
4) to utter, tell
5) to use words in order to declare one’s mind and disclose one’s thoughts
5a) to speak

And to further deter any argument, Paul said that the women were not even permitted to ask a question in the assembly. If they had a question, they should ask their husbands at home.

This was the same teaching Paul gave to Timothy in Ephesus:

1Ti 2:11-14 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

Paul provided Timothy with the justification for the teaching. It was based on the order of creation, and the facts surrounding the fall from Eden. Neither reason was specific to the culture of a particular church. Neither reason has ceased to be valid today.

Paul rebuked the Corinthians for deviating from the teaching he had left with them, through two rhetorical questions.

1Co 14:36 Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?

Of course the answer to both questions was “No!” Yet the Corinthians were so presumptuous that they took upon themselves the right to ignore this teaching in their assemblies. They were introducing customs that were foreign to the other churches, and contrary to what they had been taught. They were violating the order Paul had set in place only few years earlier when he had established the church in Corinth.

Having stated the requirement emphatically and in no uncertain terms, he emphasized the instruction by challenging their prophets to confirm that this was the command of God, not merely Paul’s opinion. And he concluded with a warning:

1Co 14:38 If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored.

Paul clearly recognized that this teaching would face opposition. Some people would not like what he was saying. But despite the unpopularity of the teaching, Paul insisted on the silence of women in the assembly. And he left no doubt: this command was not Paul’s idea. It came from God himself.

So, why is there a trend in churches today to have women speaking publicly in the assembly? The justification I usually hear is that they want to relate more effectively to the modern culture. Instead, it seems to me that they are changing the teachings of God to be more like the philosophy of the world.

This issue is related to the previously discussed issue of head coverings. As far as I have seen, biblical scholars generally concede that Paul was instructing the women in Corinth not speak in the assembly. But many creative theories have been advanced in an effort to reconcile this passage with the desire to permit women to speak publicly in the assembly. The arguments typically run along the following lines:

1) Some people hold that Paul was just wrong in saying these things. In effect they are saying that Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is not inspired scripture. One variant on this is advanced by Gordon Fee in his commentary. He holds that 1 Cor 14:34-35 are not inspired scripture, but were added later. We have absolutely no evidence that this is the case. The verses appear in every existing manuscript. The fact that Fee found it necessary to exclude these verses to support his position speaks volumes. A scholar like Fee could not find a way to reconcile these verses with the practice of permitting women to speak in the church. For more on the disputed verses, see the excellent translation notes on the subject in the NET Bible.

If we were to accept that some of the scriptures we have are not inspired, we would be opening Pandora’s Box. We would then be in a position where mortal men would have to decide which scriptures are from God and which are not.

2) Some people hold that Paul’s teachings applied only to Corinth, due to specific things that were going on in that church. But Paul clearly stated that this was the practice in all the churches. And in 1 Tim 2:11-14 he provided the reasons for the teaching–reasons that were equally true in every church in that day, and in every church today. Those reasons have not changed in nearly 2000 years, and will not change if Jesus delays another 2000 years.

3) Some people attempt to refute the teaching using Gal 3:28

Gal 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Of course that scripture is not addressing the role of women in the worship service. It is addressing our oneness in Christ. Men and women are one in Christ — parts of the same body, but with different roles. Just as Paul had specific instructions for slaves, and different instructions for their masters, Paul also had different instructions for men and women. Gal 3:28 does not refute the New Testament teachings in many places about the roles of men and women. It must be understood in the context of those other teachings, which are also the inspired word of God.

4) Some people point to the teaching on head coverings in 1 Cor 11 as evidence that women were allowed to speak in the assembly in Corinth. However, as previously mentioned, that passage was not addressing the assembly. Paul did not open up the discussion of the assembly until 1 Cor 11:17, which is the first mention of the assembly in the entire letter. The discussion of head coverings precedes the discussion of the assembly. So, it is true that Christian women in Corinth prayed and even prophesied. But they were prohibited from doing so in the assembly, based on 1 Cor 14:34-35.

It is interesting to note the inconsistency of those who teach, based on 1 Cor 11, that women can speak in the assembly–since (in my experience) they universally do not require the woman to wear a head covering when she speaks.

Is there any command of scripture given to the church in more emphatic terms than those on head coverings and silence of women? The Corinthian church must have been much like the church today. Many in the church did not want to comply with this teaching. The Holy Spirit anticipated that resistance, and supplied some of the clearest and strongest language in scripture to emphasize the point. Whether we like it or not, this is the command of God.

I recognize that many Christians disagree with this position, often very strongly. I was once among their number. Since studying this in more depth, and coming to this conviction, I have yet to hear a convincing argument for permitting women to speak. The plain meaning of Paul’s teaching is that women should be silent in the assembly. The very plainness of the language forces those who would ignore the teaching to go to great lengths — even removing verses from the Bible — in order to get around that teaching. I think we should have more respect for the scriptures than that.

I do not judge those who disagree with me on this topic. It is before the Lord that they stand or fall, and the Lord is able to make them stand. But God said these things for a reason. I trust that God will enable us all to understand His will better.

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12 comments

  1. Oh Alan, you’re having fun now!So, practically speaking, where would we expect ‘not’ to see a woman speaking? Back when I was ‘seeker’ in a mainline church I happened to be there one Sunday evening. Following the evening service, the choir from the Christian school in the area was going to sing. The choir was led by a woman. She introduced the choir and the selections they sang. I thought nothing of it (and I was already familiar with the ‘women to remain silent’ at that point). The following Wed night, one of the elders came up and apologized to the congregation that they allowed a woman to speak in the assembly. To me, what she did was outside the parameters of the ‘silence’ scripture because she wasn’t functioning in a leadership type role.ttk


  2. Hi ttk,Yes, I’m a real troublemaker on some of these topics ;-)At this point, my congregation permits a woman to sing a solo but not to speak extemporaneously to the congregation. I’m not certain that is the correct place to draw the line, but that seemed to satisfy the consciences of the folks in our congregation who feel most strongly on the subject.


  3. so, no ‘women’s day’ type announcements made from the WML?actually, we were getting a little loosy-goosy on the whole women speaking for a while. not so much a woman alone speaking; it usually involved when a couple was teaching or giving their story during a communion talk, etc. In some instances I could see that as a gray area but I think a lot of folks were uneasy when it involved the woman sharing a scripture and then her thoughts on it. I think then it was perceived, even when her thoughts were directed to women, as crossing the line. I haven’t really seen it much since MT’s been here. Not sure if it really changed due to his concerns about it or someone else’s. It’s never been directly discussed with the church here (that I remember); it may have just been one of those things discussed with the staff. I was baptized in a mainline, so the first time I heard a woman pray in a circle of men and women, I was more than a little surprised.


  4. I think a lot of the ICOC congregations still have a “hangover” from the days when Kip wanted us to have thin, powerful women with impressive careers, and to put them out front in full makeup as often as possible. I’m pretty sure we’re in the small minority. A certain visiting women’s leader (whom you undoubtedly know) was given an opportunity to sing a solo at our Sunday service, and she took the opportunity to preach a little before the song (without asking first of course). We now know to be more careful in giving instructions in a case like that.


  5. I’m uncomfortable with this, not because it’s not true but because our culture puts women in the same roles as men and chastises you if you refuse to let them take on a certain role. (To be honest, my resistance to the head covering issue is probably at least in part due to my culture telling me it’s silly.)There’s part of me that feels like the restrictions are more rigid that the tone of the rest of the NT. Part of that is the sometimes silly lengths and debates that ensue in trying to enforce this. In other words, can a woman do announcements? How about a communion lesson with her husband? Share a scripture? Any of these can launch folks into a debate on what constitutes ‘teaching’ or ‘speaking’ or the ‘assembly’. Such debates over the technicalities fo how to conduct a worship service seem to be far removed from the central message of Jesus. Jesus wasn’t concerned (that we know of) with the minutiae of worship services.The other thing I think about is what was meant by ‘the assembly’ in that day verses now. Now it’s the traditional Sunday worship, but I suspect that has little resemblance to their assemblies. Was it simply whenever they got together? I dunno.One thing is absolutely clear, Paul taught that the leadership role and teaching role were not for the women. No getting around that here.I also can’t help but wonder if the men over the ages had practiced their leadership will more compassion, better listening, more submission to the needs of the women and greater sensitivity, would this be an issue today?


  6. Hi salguodI understand the feeling you’ve expressed. OTOH I am not prepared to allow my impressions of the tone of various scriptures to refute what looks so plain in another scripture. Maybe my impression of the tone of other scriptures needs to be refined to take into account this one.From my perspective, the answer to each of the hypothetical questions you asked would quite obviously be “no.” It’s simply a matter of obedience. There is no difficulty in this passage, except for those who don’t want to follow it. The language is very clear. It seems obvious what Paul expected the Corinthian church to do with this. And there is nothing in this scripture to indicate that it no longer applies.


  7. Here is a another thought. Go back to Paul's instructions about unknown tongues earlier. If there was no interpretation, then the person(s) were to remain silent. The culture of that day had a seating (pecking) order. Oldest men up front, then the younger men, then the women. The Jewish (Herod's) Temple in Jerusalem was not alone in this seating heirarchy. There was no such thing as multi-media presentations or intricate sound systems.This would mean that those sitting in the back (women) might not hear what was being said. Perhaps the women in the back, wanting to hear the Gospel and its teachings, were interupting the speaker–thus Paul, who wanted order in worship, wanted the women to wait until they got home to ask their husband (who would be sitting up front) what was said.One cannot take a single verse to justify a single position, but must look at the whole picture. Peter stood up at Pentecost and said men and women would prophesy. As Paul concluded his comments in his letter to the Romans, many of the names of key leaders were feminine names.Here's something to think about: Was Peter wrong at Pentecost? Was the prophet Joel wrong when he spoke about "that" day?Greeting and Peace brothers and sisters,Randy from Alabama


  8. Anonymous, your suggestion about the women sitting at the back and interrupting etc is speculation. There is nothing in the text about that.Men and women did prophesy in the first century. The women just didn't do it in the assembly. Note that Paul says his instruction about women being silent in the assembly was the standard "in all the churches."


  9. Seems common practice even in more conservative churches where woman cannot speak, read scripture lead singing etc, can actively participate in bible class. After review they were instructed to ask their questions at home. Is it my understanding that you believe the text to prohibit both, why or why not?

    Thanks for the great site! Rev study is great!


    • The Bible doesn’t make any distinction between the Bible class and the “worship service.” The Sunday assembly is never called a “worship service” in scripture (in fact it is never called “worship”, period.) And there is no biblical teaching nor example to divide the assembly into smaller groups for Bible classes. So this distinction is entirely the invention of the modern church (20th century). Whatever God was communicating through Paul on the subject of women in the assembly, I think it must have meant any time the church assembled.


      • My thoughts exactly. For a long time I was on your side of the fence but over the last few years I have come to believe that woman would just be prohibited from authoritative roles in the church. This belief does bring up some interesting problems with scripture which your blog explains quite well. However if you consider that the practices that Paul committed on would be considered of one having authority then it helps explain why the Lord discouraged the practice in all the churches. The same principle would apply today but does that mean the same practices are prohibited. Like you, I find it hard to swallow that women would be prohibited in a certain time of a manmade service and not in others. Almost like a loophole to fit into modern society. On the other hand, by your approach it does bring to question why women do not cover their heads, amonst other things. I know I know, those where cultural and Paul reminds Timothy that this was from the beginning. But what was from the beginning? Eve’s punishment (woman’s) was that “her desire shall be for her husband and he shall Rule over you.”. Paul echoes this in chapter 7 of 1 chorinthians. The same would be true today. The husband should be the head of the household but since a woman speaking today isn’t seen as authoritative, like that of an elder, then they could participate so long as it does not remove honor or cause stabling blocks for others as mentioned in Roman’s 14.

        I haven’t come to a conclusion on this issue but your words have encouraged me to further study. Thanks for your time and prompt responses, your blog is both a helpful and encouraging tool!


      • Hi Matt,

        There are plenty of subjects where I am still searching for clarity. I think we all have a few of those subjects. You are responding in a great way by being encouraged to further study. Thanks for your comments!



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